10 Best Cat Stevens Songs

Cat Stevens launched his career as a teen idol, scoring hits with heavily arranged songs like ‘I Love My Dog’ and ‘Matthew and Son’ in the 1960s. A near-fatal case of tuberculosis and a collapsed lung left him hospitalised, with time to refine to rethink his approach. When he returned in 1970, his music was transformed, stripped down to basics and introspective.

It’s the early 1970s Cat Stevens of Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat who’s the best-loved iteration – most of his best-known songs come from those two records. Stevens had a great support team around him; second guitarist and vocalist Alun Davies and producer Paul Samwell-Smith were both integral to his simple sound.

Stevens wasn’t the most dynamic singer-songwriter, but he was a natural at crafting songs that were universally relatable. Songs like ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ and ‘Father and Son’ express common-sense sentiments that resonate with the general population. Here are ten of Stevens’ best-loved songs:

10 Best Cat Stevens Songs

#10 The First Cut is the Deepest

from New Masters (1967)
Like Stevens’ other 1960s recordings ‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’ is overblown, but it’s proven to be a robust song. Stevens was the writer but didn’t have a hit with his version. Instead, it’s been a hit for at least six other performers, including P. P. Arnold in 1967, Rod Stewart in 1977, and Sheryl Crow in 2003.

#9 Oh Very Young

from Buddha and the Chocolate Box (1974)
As the 1970s progressed, Cat Stevens’ music became more ambitious. From 1974’s Buddha and the Chocolate Box ‘Oh Very Young’ was an exception, recalling the elegant simplicity of his earlier 1970s songs. The lyrics gently reference Buddy Holly, including the phrases “words of love” and “not fade away”.

#8 Morning Has Broken

from Teaser and the Firecat (1971)
Stevens took a 1930s Christian hymn into the US top ten, where his gentle vocals are a perfect fit for the song’s wide-open wonder at creation. Stevens was assisted by Rick Wakeman, also famous for his keyboard work for Yes and on David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, whose flowing piano is the piece’s focal point. It’s also worth tracking down the non-album b-side, ‘I Want To Live in a Wigwam‘.

#7 Peace Train

from Teaser and the Firecat (1971)
Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam, played this song at the memorial service for the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings. ‘Peace Train’ is a great showcase for key collaborator Alun Davies – his guitar work is lovely, and his backing vocals work beautifully. The song was covered by Natalie Merchant’s 10,000 Maniacs on In My Tribe; they deleted the song from subsequent pressings due to Stevens’ controversial opinions about Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses.

#6 Where Do The Children Play?

from Tea for the Tillerman (1970)
Just like peace songs, environmental songs were popular around the turn of the 1970s. Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ and Marvin Gaye’s ‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’ are two other examples. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962 was an important catalyst for the environmental movement. Stevens posts his argument pragmatically, asking where the children will play.

#5 Fill My Eyes

from Mona Bone Jakon (1970)
Stevens had his folk-rock sound figured out on Mona Bone Jakon, his first album back from tuberculosis, but he was still working out what to write about. ‘Mona Bone Jakon’ is titled after Stevens’ pet name for his penis and ‘Katmandu’, with Peter Gabriel on flute, gives out hippie vibes. Meanwhile ‘Fill My Eyes’ is impressionistic, with Stevens singing “I’m just a coaster but my wheels won’t go”. I have no idea what it’s about, but it’s very pretty.

#4 Moonshadow

from Teaser and the Firecat (1971)
Stevens studied art at college before becoming a musician. He drew the artwork for some of his albums, including Teaser and the Firecat, and he later expanded the ideas on the cover into a children’s book. ‘Moonshadow’ sounds like a children’s song; inspired by Stevens, who’d grown up in the bright lights of London, seeing his moon shadow for the first time while on holiday in Spain.

#3 Father and Son

from Tea for the Tillerman (1970)
Stevens originally wrote this song for a musical set in the Russian revolution, about a boy who wanted to join the army against his father’s wishes. The project was shelved due to Stevens’ tuberculosis; when the song emerged, it was removed from its specific context and instead captured inter-generational tension in a universal way. Stevens sings the parts of the father and the son in different registers, but the song’s x-factor comes from Alun Davies’ creative backing vocals.

#2 Sad Lisa

from Tea for the Tillerman (1970)
Stevens wrote accessible songs, but there’s also a deep current of sadness and existential crisis in his work. This is particularly true of 1970’s breakthrough album, Tea for the Tillerman. Stevens has never specified what ‘Sad Lisa’ is about. It’s possible to interpret it as a personal struggle with depression or as empathy for a friend, but either way, it’s heartrendingly beautiful and sad. The vibrato-laden strings and melancholy piano are perfectly arranged.

#1 Into White

from Tea for the Tillerman (1970)
The lyrics from Stevens’ 1970s catalogue read like a search for life’s meaning, so it’s not surprising that he dealt with death on ‘Into White’. Stevens’ lyrics are vague enough here that they’re open to interpretation, but the line “everything emptying into white”certainly suggests dying. ‘Into White’ is brief and elegant; it’s a great song that was never a single and is often left off his compilations.

What are your favourite Cat Stevens’ songs?

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  1. That’s a pretty strong list- I’d add on- Matthew and Son, The Wind, Here Comes My Baby, Tea For The TIllerman.. my favorite singer-songwriter from the 70’s singer-songwriter period… now I want to play a Cat album- ….as I reach for “The Best of”..

  2. A fine list to which I would only add one of my favorites, “Wild World.” Kudos to you for being one of probably three people who knew he wrote “First Cut is the Deepest.” I think my favorite song by him is “Father and Son.” Very heartfelt and poignant. I remember being in a communications class in college and using that song as an example of communication, or lack thereof.

    • Stevens is a very good communicator – expresses ideas in a way that people can relate to. I think I burned out on ‘Wild World’ a little – there were a few covers of it around as well when I was growing up. It was the song that broke him big in the states.

  3. Although that said, in “Father and Son,” I’ve always been bugged by the iine, “You’re still young, that’s your fault.” Well, unless I’m totally missing the implication it’s hard to blame someone for their age.

  4. All great choices, and I’m happy to see at least one song from Mona Bone Jakon, which on any given day could be my favorite Cat Stevens album. There are too many other songs that could crack my Top 10, and the first one that comes to mind is “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out.” Not only is it a great upbeat song but it always conjures images of Harold & Maude. It probably gets overlooked in his discography because it never appeared on one of his studio albums.

    • Thank you – he did have some good contenders for the list – ‘Hard Headed Woman’ was one song that I really like that I had to cull from the list. I did cover Harold and Maude briefly on my reviews page: https://albumreviews.blog/reviews/cat-stevens/ – I liked the two new songs, and they’re clearly quality writing from his best period, but probably haven’t spent enough time with them for them to break into the top 10.

  5. Moonshadow and If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out…Not a deep song but I guess I love Harold and Maude so much it just ranks high to me.
    His voice is so unique…there is no mistaking him with anyone else. I hate using the word “Brand” but he has one with his voice.

    • His voice is very gentle and wispy. I don’t think many people could have made ‘Morning Has Broken’ into a hit like he did – his voice was perfect for that. But I don’t like his voice when he tries to sing a little abrasively – ‘Can’t Keep It In’ is a good song, but doesn’t suit his voice.

  6. Very enjoyable post. I was moved by his presence and performance at the Christchurch memorial event.
    The two I’d add to your list have already been mentioned: ‘Wild World’ and ‘Hard Headed Woman’. That I wouldn’t venture to cut anything from your list says plenty about the depth, as other have mentioned.

  7. Y’know, I’ve never connected with his stuff. I don’t know why. I’ll acknowledge that he knows how to craft a song, but I’m afraid I just don’t feel moved when I listen to him.

    • I used to think he was a bit of a light-weight. But I think Tea for the Tillerman is a very good album, and he squeezed a lot of good output from a relatively modest musical talent.

  8. Wild World
    Peace TraIn
    Oh Very Young
    Boy with the Moon and Star on His Head
    First Cut is the Deepest
    Morning Has Broken
    Ghost Town

  9. Well, you wouldn’t want to go any further than Buddha and the Chocolate box. For me, all his albums up to that point were just about equal. I find that all of those albums have about four
    great ones on it and then a whole bunch of songs that I don’t like. Even the early ones like Tea for the tillerman. I don’t think it’s any better than the later ones. In the sense that it has just as many good ones on it.

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